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Beverley Folk Festival 2014

Well, I guess a lot can happen between the beginning and the end of a music festival. They usually start with some degree of optimistic anticipation upon arrival, closely followed by anything from mild satisfaction to unbridled euphoria as your favourite bands, singers, musicians, comedians, authors or dancers take to the stage. Then there's the celebratory drinks, the late nights and the hangover that often comes with it, not to mention the frequent belly laughs. John Hegley can certainly make that happen with or without a hanky on his head. Inevitably though, along comes the bottom lip, which makes an appearance at the end of the festival as we pack away our tents for another year and return to the life we left behind a few days ago. It's a tried and tested and totally acceptable way of going about things.

The bottom lip has finally returned to a smile as I sit here poised and ready to reflect on what was possibly one of the best Beverley Folk Festivals that I've attended in a good while. As far as the weather was concerned, it looked promising from the start with the sun sticking around pretty much for the duration. As the tent pegs were driven into the soft ground on Friday afternoon, to a beat, the first rhythmic pattern of the weekend, a sound that appeared to mingle with the popping of celebratory corks, old friends were reunited whilst new friends were made, all on a green field bathed in glorious sunlight. That sunlight was reflected in the faces of those who arrived early, all celebrating in tandem as musicians sound checked beneath the white marquee roofs. Beverley Minster peered majestically across the pastures as stalls were being erected, tents were being pitched and Wold Top beer was being poured.

The pleasant atmosphere we found upon arrival at the town's historic racecourse, the new home of the festival for the second year running, didn't happen by accident. A carefully selected band of friendly yellow jacketed munchkins were there to assist on that score, helping visitors with directions, programme details and other general information. One or two of them even applied colourful bands to our respective wrists, carefully ensuring the sticky bit didn't touch our skin. It's that sort of attention to detail that I like.

By the time I arrived on site, stories were already circulating about Billy Bragg sightings, as if he were a rare bird. Suddenly everyone seemed to be twitching with their bins at the ready as Friday night's headline performer found time to wander around the festival village, chatting to anyone who wished to stop for a natter, before stopping to watch the footy. "I wonder if the bookies are taking bets on whether I'll be singing Between the Wars tonight" he joked. The odds were definitely in favour of that.

Yes, everyone had their own Billy Bragg story to tell and by mid-evening the man would have his own stories ready to deliver before a large gathering in the main stage marquee. The radical socialist-turned-Country crooner with a penchant for espousing socialist rhetoric and an additional fondness for name-checking The Clash at every given opportunity, not to mention his long palship with one Martin Carfy (more of later) and his humble role as benefactor to the sacred texts of Woody Gaffrie, all contribute to Billy Bragg's appeal, although there's much more besides. I guess Billy Bragg would hate to be thought of as a national treasure, an overused term to say the least, but certainly the term 'local hero' works, despite the singer coming from another part of the country altogether.

Whilst Billy worked his magic on the main stage, something quite different was happening on the concert and dance stage at the other side of the village, as Quebecois quartet Le Vent Du Nord, the name of which everyone seems to have difficulty in pronouncing (La van duh'nor), took to the stage for the first of two billed performances over the weekend. I first witnessed what this band could do at the Shepley Spring Festival in 2011 and last year I was delighted to be given the job of introducing them myself at the Elsecar Madfest, but this was their Beverley debut and the excitement was tangible prior to their long awaited performance. 

Earlier on Friday evening the Sheffield-based singer/songwriter Neil McSweeney got everything off to a good start with a selection of his own songs, whilst inadvertently being upstaged by a couple of magpies circling above his head. By contrast, the other stage saw a performance by a young flamenco guitarist from the other side of the Pennines. Relaxed in black T shirt and matching Bogart hat, Louis Brookes performed some fine instrumental music, seemingly surprised by the applause after each piece. Other appearances on the two main stages on Friday night included The Nick Rooke Band who were in fine fettle, the young Anglo/Canadian quartet Sail Pattern bringing some of their youthful spirit to the concert stage and Country crooners Good Intentions, who added their own brand of Americana to the proceedings. A mandolin-wielding Mitch Benn stirred things up in the comedy club, whilst the Wold Top marquee, home of the Area 2 sessions, featured some surprisingly good sets by some of the younger performers appearing at the festival, presided over by Sam Pirt and Jim Molyneux. If the opening night brought any personal disappointment at all, then it was the fact that I stupidly missed singer/songwriter Jo Bywater by a gnat's whisker, having spent far too long erecting my tent and going on to reward myself with a cup of tea for my efforts afterwards. However, Danny Pedler and Rosie Butler-Hall made up for it with some fine accordion and fiddle playing, with some Hurdy-Gurdy thrown in.

The sun definitely had its hat on once again on Saturday morning as the festival limped into action after a late night in the Wold Top Marquee, with Le Vent Du Nord stealing the show. As the village stirred and the sky filled with colour, the legendary broadcaster Andy Kershaw arrived on site with his faithful companion Buster the dog in order to deliver one of his entertaining 'No Off Switch' talks. The presentation, centred around Kershaw's autobiography of that name, is accompanied by slides showing pivotal moments in the broadcaster's long and eventful career, not only as a music promoter, radio DJ and TV presenter but also as an intrepid travel journalist covering some of the world's hottest of war-torn hotspots, all delivered to a soundtrack made up from a handful of life changing records. Earlier in the morning I saw a somewhat agitated Kershaw pacing up and down the concert and dance marquee, worried that the unexpected and intense sunshine would make the slideshow redundant in an outdoor marquee. In the nick of time a decision was made to relocate the event to a more conducive venue, the Rapid Lad Bar. "I've played in some strange locations in my time but never before have I played in a bookies" Kershaw quipped.

Kershaw's talk was amusing, informative, entertaining and in all fairness, probably a bit rushed. There's so much to fit in that time constraints made it impossible to cover everything. When compere Miles Salter gave the 'ten minutes left' signal, Kershaw protested that he was only half way through and his journey into World Music and in particular the Bhundu Boys had only just begun. True to his moniker, the man really doesn't have an 'off' switch and he proceeded to run well over time.

Meanwhile on the main stage, Artistic Director Chris Wade introduced one of this year's festival highlights, featuring author Michael Morpurgo, who took to the stage to retell his celebrated War Horse story, straight from the horse's mouth as it were. As the children's author took on all the characters in the book with convincing accents and characterisation, at times bringing some of the audience to tears, John Tams and Barry Coope performed some of the songs from the original National Theatre production.  

Martin and Eliza Carthy have appeared in various guises at the festival over the years but never as a duo. To coincide with the release of their debut album as a duo, The Moral of the Elephant, Martin and Eliza's two sets, the first being on Saturday afternoon in the concert and dance marquee and then again on Saturday evening on the main stage, were made up of material from the album. Andy Kershaw, fresh from his exhaustive talk, relaxed in the wings during the afternoon concert. At times reminiscent of those early Carthy/Swarbrick days, particularly during the tunes featuring Eliza's no fuss fiddle playing, the duo took command not only of the stage, but also their material and their audience throughout two highly engaging sets.

Over on the main stage, the Crossing Continents concert took place featuring the Scots/English powerhouse band Manran, complete with twin bagpipes, together with another lively appearance by Le Vent Du Nord, both bands delivering high octane performances throughout the afternoon. As a special treat, the two bands united at the end, filling the stage and the marquee with an unexpected blend of Scots/English/Quebecois music that soon had the audience on their feet in front of the stage. 

One of the most popular areas of the festival village is the Wold Top Marquee, which is home to several contrasting events throughout the weekend. During the evening the Area 2 Sessions take place, providing a platform for young musicians; the straw bales and sofas scattered around the marquee offering a relaxed and cosy atmosphere for both performers and audience alike. This gave us all an opportunity to check out the potential headliners of the future. The importance of Area 2 cannot be overestimated. During the afternoon, Leila Cooper went on to stage her annual Moonbeams sessions, introducing a variety of local performers as well as those from further a field. Over the weekend we saw appearances by the likes of Jess Morgan from Norwich and Dan Wilde from Cambridge, both of whom provided slick performances of some of their best songs to date, as well as the young 17 year-old Katie Spencer from Hornsea, who charmed the audience with her distinctive breathy voice and uncomplicated guitar style, whilst giant dragonflies hovered above. If the relaxed atmosphere permeates the Wold Top marquee through the afternoons and evenings, all hell breaks loose after hours, when Leila provides some of the best late night entertainment a folk festival can possibly offer, with some of the main stage artists popping along to provide impromptu performances that go on well into the night.

It's not easy to calculate precisely how many music stages there are at Beverley Festival, they seem to crop up just about everywhere. We know the two main stages occupy the extreme ends of the festival site, strategically placed so that the music doesn't interfere with one another. But then there's the Wold Top Marquee somewhere in between, the Paddock View room within the Grandstand complex, where the Comedy Club takes place, this year featuring such notable figures as Sean Hughes, Mitch Benn and Fake Thackray. Then there's the platform in front of the main racecourse building where I sat for a while listening to the young Lincoln-based singer/songwriter and guitarist Elliott Morris, whose main stage appearance can't be too far off in the future. Midway between the Wold Top marquee and the main stage there's also an open air acoustic stage for impromptu busking and several colourful dance displays, perfect for hot sunny days such as these, and yes, there were pirates up to no good too, courtesy of Nashville's Tom Mason and his relatively local Blue Buccaneers.

On Saturday night there was two main concerts, which included the Mid-Summer Special featuring performances by The Home Service, who brought some of their own brand of brass-led Folk Rock to the festival, Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy once again together with the wide-eyed and highly animated Duncan McFarlane Band, whilst the concert and dance marquee played host to the Celtic Connection concert featured Ireland's Caladh Nua, Scotland's Manran and a welcome return to the festival by the mighty LAU. Oh yes, there was Aidan O'Rourke, master musician and current holder of the 'Heavyweight Champion of the Musical World' title, according to the powers that BBC! His instrument, the humble fiddle, makes redundant the old saying 'scraping the horse's hair over the cat's gut'. What Aidan does with the fiddle is nothing short of angelic. Then there's guitarist Kris Drever, whose upturned eyebrows and pouting lips could at first sight be mistaken for smugness, but again there's more to it than that. To me, the expression says 'glad you're enjoying this because I certainly am and I'd be doing it even if you weren't here'. Finally there's Martin Green, mad professor of this parish, slouched Gollum-like over his accordion, almost totally camouflaged by gaffer tape and surrounded by various angled keyboards and an assortment of obscure instruments that look for all intents and purposes like they were made out of old bits of junk. The angle of the keyboard suggests that one night the instrument accidentally fell over due to some heavy handed application and the musician found that he actually preferred it that way. Never before have I seen a musician surrounded by so many wires.

The marquee was full to capacity once the trio started and the stewards were running a 'one-out-one-in' scheme. I couldn't help feel for those queuing up outside all of whom probably fully aware that their hopes of getting in were slim. I half-hoped that the powers that be would at some point lift the side flaps to let the music spill out over the surrounding area, which would in turn have provided the festival with its most heart-warming nod to the 'peace and love' generation, but alas, it was an opportunity missed.

As the Minster bells heralded in Sunday morning, a large gathering filled the main stage for one of the festival centre pieces as local students from Longcroft School joined forces with students from Bremerhaven in Germany to present, along with others, the War Horse project. Part music and poetry, part spoken word and theatre, the production was both dramatic and moving at the same time and soon had the audience reaching for the Kleenex for a second time this weekend. Michael Morpurgo, whose purpose seems to be making grownups cry, sat amongst the audience and watched intently as Joey the horse, created by the Millers Day Centre, was led around the marquee. 

Despite their reputation for being the British folk scene's merchants of melancholia, the twice BBC Folk Award nominated duo Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker have an offstage manner that betrays this notion. Good humoured and conversational, Josienne and Ben sat for a chat after their sublime set, which saw Ben alternating between classical and regular guitar, whilst Josienne delivered some of her fine readings of traditional, contemporary and self-penned songs with a voice that could quite possibly define the genre in the not too distant future. Yes, I like this duo a lot and I simply can't wait to hear their new album, which is by all accounts all ready in the can and ready to go. Shortly after Josienne and Ben's set, CoCo and the Butterfields returned to the Beverley stage after their successful performance last year, with a set that showcased their unique blend of folk and pop, with their distinctive hip hop credentials on show for all to see. 

Completing Sunday afternoon's concert on the main stage was the eagerly anticipated appearance by singer/songwriter Thea Gilmore, whose prolific back catalogue was rifled through in order to present a set that included some of the singer's best loved songs such as Old Souls, with the occasional cover, such as The Beatles' classic All You Need is Love.

For those who prefer something more along the lines of Bluegrass, Country and Old Timey, the concert stage hosted the now traditional Americana Concert, this year featuring such delights as the Kansas-based duo Truckstop Honeymoon, one of the surprise acts of the festival, who brought to the table some authentic New Orleans roots music, performed on upright bass and five string banjo. I spent some time the previous night (or should I say morning) on a sofa with Katie and Mike, both of whom were sweet and charming, only to discover moments later the sheer power of their frantic performance when they played the late night Wold Top stage. Once again the duo startled the audience on the concert and dance stage on Sunday afternoon, sharing the stage with Gentlemen of Few, Whiskey Dogs and the fun-loving swashbuckling antics of Tom Mason and the Blue Buccaneers, where Nashville met Driffield and Hull in one fell swoop, ooh arr me hearties! 

By Sunday evening the festival village began to rest beneath a blanket of peace and quiet as the last of the burgers and Whitby fish and chips were consumed in the calm before the storm of the final concerts. There were already signs of the camp dispersing as tent pegs were pulled and car boots were filled. My tent was already in the van ready to make a quick getaway after the concert. I was still humming the tune of one of the songs performed earlier by one of the best bands I'd seen all weekend, Barcode Zebra, Jess Gardham's outfit, whose tight rhythm section puts some bands to shame (Note: Emma Whitehead, fantastic drummer, must keep an eye on). Still to come though was the Festival Farewell Party Night in the concert and dance marquee, featuring some of the acts that had already played, such as Manran, CoCo and the Butterfields, Truckstop Honeymoon and Green Diesel. Alternatively, there was the Finale Concert on the main stage featuring Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, whose set was not only filled with great music but also great fun as the duo joked around, at one point Ciaran Algar being consoled by backstage crew member Mick Harding after being teased by both his musical partner and the audience alike. Sometimes all you need is a hug from a stage hand!

Old friends Barbara Dickson and Rab Noakes played an all too short set midway through the concert, with a set of standards including Dan Penn's Do Right Woman, promising to return next year with a fuller set. The two singers accompanied themselves on a couple of guitars and performed with no frills, creating music that you could easily imagine being played in your living room. Finally, the festival went out with a good old knees up as popular entertainers Chas and Dave took to the stage, slightly later than advertised, to perform a whole bunch of sing-a-long favourites.    

By the time Chas and Dave were taking their final bow and the final Wold Top session was about to commence, this Beverley regular was well on the way home with the strains of 'give me a London girl everytime' playing on repeat in my head. A fine and fitting end to this year's festival, although my abiding memory will probably be of Le Vent Du Nord's charismatic accordion/bassist Réjean Brunet reaching out to bid farewell to the audience. A cracker of a festival.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky